Robert Louis Stevenson Biography
By Richard Dury, from the RLS Website
Life and Publications Summary
Robert Lewis (later: “Louis”) Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on 13 November 1850. His father Thomas belonged to a family of engineers who had built many of the deep-sea lighthouses around the rocky coast of Scotland. His mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour, came from a family of lawyers and church ministers. In 1857 the family moved to 17 Heriot Row, a solid respectable house in Edinburgh’s New Town.
At the age of seventeen he enrolled at Edinburgh University to study engineering, with the aim – his father hoped – of following him in the family firm. However, he abandoned this course of studies and made the compromise of studying law. He “passed advocate” in 1875 but did not practice since by now he knew he wanted to be a writer. In the university’s summer vacations he went to France to be in the company of other young artists, both writers and painters. His first published work was an essay called “Roads”, and his first published volumes were works of travel writing.
Early Published Works
His first published volume, An Inland Voyage (1878), is an account of the journey he made by canoe from Antwerp to northern France, in which prominence is given to the author and his thoughts. A companion work, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes (1879), gives us more of his thoughts on life and human society and continues in consolidating the image of the debonair narrator that we also find in his essays and letters (which can be classed among his best works).
Meeting with Fanny, Journey to California, Marriage
The meeting with his future wife, Fanny, was to change the rest of his life. They met immediately after his “inland voyage”, in September 1876 at Grez, a riverside village south-east of Paris; he was twenty-five, and she was thirty-six, an independent American “New Woman”, separated from her husband and with two children. Two years later she returned to California and a year after that, in August 1879, RLS set out on the long journey to join her. This experience was to be the subject of his next large-scale work The Amateur Emigrant (written 1879-80, published in part in 1892 and in full in 1895), an account of this journey to California, which Noble (1985: 14) considers his finest work. In this work of perceptive reportage and open-minded and humane observation the voice is less buoyant and does not avoid observation of hardship and suffering. (The light-hearted paradoxes and confidential address to the reader of the essays written a few years before (1876-77) and then published as Virginibus Puerisque (1881) continue in the creation of that original debonair authorial persona.) After Fanny obtained a divorce, she and RLS were married in San Francisco in May 1880. Concluding this first period of writing based closely on his own direct experiences is The Silverado Squatters (1883), an account of their three week honeymoon at an abandoned silver mine in California.
Stevenson has an important place in the history of the short story in the British Isles: the form had been elaborated and developed in America, France and Russia from the mid-19th century, but it was Stevenson who initiated the British tradition. His first published fictional narrative was “A Lodging for the Night” (1877), a short story originally published in a magazine, like other early narrative works, such as “The Sire De Malétroit’s Door” (1877), “Providence and the Guitar” (1878), and “The Pavilion on the Links” (1880, considered by Conan Doyle in 1890 as “the high-water mark of [Stevenson’s] genius” and “the first short story in the world” (Menikoff 1990, p. 342). These four tales were collected in a volume entitled New Arabian Nights in 1882, preceded by the seven linked stories originally called “Latter-Day Arabian Nights” when published in a magazine in 1878. This collection is seen as the starting point for the history of the English short story by Barry Menikoff (1987, p. 126). The Arabian stories were described by critics of the time as “fantastic stories of adventure”, “grotesque romances” “in which the analytic mind loses itself” (Maixner, pp. 117, 120), and are seen by Chesterton as “unequalled” and “the most unique of his works”(p. 169). They have an affinity with the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in their setting in the labyrinthine modern city, and the subject matter of crimes and guilty secrets involving respectable members of society. Stevenson continued to write short stories all his life, and notable titles include: “Thrawn Janet” (1881), “The Merry Men” (1882), “The Treasure of Franchard” (1883), “Markheim” (1885), which, being a narrative of the Double, has certain affinities with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. “Olalla” (1885), which like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde originated in a dream also deals with the possibility of degeneration. The above short narratives were all collected in The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables in 1887.
“Olalla” was written in the period of just over two years (1885-87) when Stevenson and Fanny were living in Bournemouth. Despite problems of health and finances, this was a period of meetings with Henry James, W.E. Henley and other literary figures, and when he wrote the long short-story (published as a single volume), his “breakthrough book” Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).
Another collection Island Nights’ Entertainments, tales with a South Sea setting, was published in 1893, including “The Bottle Imp” (1891), “The Beach of Falesà” (1892, a long short story of the same length as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), and “The Isle of Voices”(1893).
Treasure Island and “Children’s Literature”
Another fortuitous turning-point in Stevenson’s life had occurred when on holiday in Scotland in the summer of 1881. The cold rainy weather forced the family to amuse themselves indoors, and one day Stevenson and his twelve-year-old stepson, Lloyd (Fanny’s son by her first marriage), drew, coloured and annotated the map of an imaginary “Treasure Island“. The map stimulated Stevenson’s imagination and, “On a chill September morning, by the cheek of a brisk fire” he began to write a story based on it as an entertainment for the rest of the family. Treasure Island (published in book form in 1883) marks the beginning of his popularity and his career as a profitable writer, it was his first volume-length fictional narrative, and the first of his writings “for children”(or rather, the first of writings manipulating the genres associated with children). Later works that fit into this category are A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), The Black Arrow (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and its continuation Catriona (1893). The four narrative works mentioned in this paragraph, though they all have youthful protagonists and were all first published in magazines for young people, are also clearly intended for adult readers. The last three, based on careful documentary research, are fictions exploring history and culture; and the last two are interesting studies of Scottish culture and could also be placed in the following section.
Novels and Romances
Prince Otto (1885), his second full-length narrative, is defined by as “a philosophical-humouristical-psychological fantasy” (Maixner, p. 181). The action is provocatively set in the imaginary state of Grünewald, an unusual choice for Stevenson, and it was to historical Scotland (which had already provided the setting for Kidnapped and Catriona) that he turned for his next full-length “adult” story, The Master of Ballantrae (1889). This is a Doubles narrative in which the brothers James and Henry have similarities with Jekyll and Hyde, not only in their initials, but also because of the mixed personality of the “good” character, the constant return of the persecuting Double, and the simultaneous death of the two antagonists. Both Calvino and Brecht consider it to be the best of Stevenson’s works, and it is highly praised by writers as diverse as Henry James, Walter Benjamin and André Gide. The novel that he was working on when he died, Weir of Hermiston (published incomplete and posthumously in 1896), is also set in Scotland in the not-too-distant past and has also been often praised and seen as Stevenson’s masterpiece. The centre of the story is the difficult relationship of an authoritarian father and a son who has to assert his own identity (a theme present in many of Stevenson’s works – and we may remember that Hyde is presented in some ways as Jekyll’s son – clearly a way for Stevenson to explore and come to terms with his difficult relationship with his own father).
In the South Seas
Weir of Hermiston, Stevenson’s very Scottish romance, was written when Stevenson was far away on the other side of the world. His decision to sail around the Pacific in 1888, living on various islands for short periods, then setting off again (all the time collecting material for an anthropological and historical work on the South Seas which was never fully completed), was another turning point in his life. In 1889 he and his extended family arrived at the port of Apia in the Samoan islands and they decided to build a house and settle. This choice brought him health, distance from the distractions of literary circles, and went towards the creation of his mature literary persona: the traveller, the exile, very aware of the harsh sides of life but also celebrating the joy in his own skill as a weaver of words and teller of tales. It also acted as a new stimulus to his imagination. He wrote about the Pacific islands in several of his later works: Island Nights’ Entertainments already referred to; In the South Seas (published 1896), essays that would have gone towards the large work on the area that he planned; and two other narratives with a South Sea setting: The Wrecker (1892), and The Ebb-Tide (1894). The former is a mystery adventure set in various places over the globe but centred in the South Seas (indeed at Midway Island, Latitude 0°) with some dark tones, especially in the fruitless search for treasure and the massacre of a ship’s crew (for quite understandable reasons!). The Ebb-Tide (like “The Beach of Falesà”) gives a realistic picture of the degenerate European traders and riffraff who inhabited the ports of the Pacific islands. These South Sea narratives mark a definite move towards a more harsh and grim realism (Stevenson himself acknowledges affinities of The Ebb-Tide with the work of Zola (Maixner, p. 452)).
The authorial persona had changed from the debonair flâneur of the early works, but retained a joy in his craft and a consciousness in the shaping of his own life. He died in December 1894 and even shaped the manner of his burial: as he had wished, he was buried at the top of Mount Vaea above his home on Samoa. Appropriately it was a part of his own short poem, “Requiem” (from an 1887 collection), that was written on his tomb: “Under the wide and starry sky, / Dig the grave and let me lie…”
Stevenson’s establishes a personal relationship with the reader, and creates a sense of wonder through his brilliant style and his adoption and manipulation of a variety of genres. Writing when the period of the three-volume novel (dominant from about 1840 to 1880) was coming to an end, he seems to have written everything except a traditional Victorian novel: plays, poems, essays, literary criticism, literary theory, biography, travelogue, reportage, romances, boys’ adventure stories, fantasies, fables, and short stories. Like the other writers who were asserting the serious artistic nature of the novel at this time he writes in a careful, almost poetic style – yet he provocatively combines this with an interest in popular genres. His popularity with critics continued to the First World War. He then had the misfortune to be followed by the Modernists who needed to cut themselves off from any tradition; Stevenson was felt to be one of the most constraining of immediately-preceding authors for his sheer ability, and one of the most insidious for his play with popular genres and for his preference for “romance” over the serious novel. Condemned by Virginia and especially Leonard Woolf (not unconnected, perhaps, with the fact that one of Stevenson’s great supporters had been Virginia’s father), ignored by F.R.Leavis, he was gradually excluded from the “canon” of regularly taught and written-about works of literature. The nadir comes in 1973 when Frank Kermode and John Hollander published their Oxford Anthology of English Literature. With over two thousand pages at their disposal in which to exemplify and comment on the notable poetry and prose produced in the British Isles from “1800 to the Present”, not one page is devoted to Stevenson – in the whole closely-printed two thousand pages, Stevenson is not even mentioned once! Critical interest has been increasing slowly since then, in some countries more than others, though there have been few single-volume studies when compared with the large numbers of books published every year on his contemporaries James and Conrad. Stevenson, some might say, has been fortunate to escape such attention. Reading this Mozartian and mercurial writer remains for many as for Borges, despite critical neglect, quite simply “a form of happiness”.
Ambrosini, Sonia, “La fortuna critica di Robert Louis Stevenson in Italia, con riferimento ad Italo Calvino”, Laurea (M.A.) dissertation, (Università di Bergamo, 1991)
Borges, Jorge Luis, “Prefazione :Robert Louis Stevenson”, L’isola delle voci (Parma: Ricci, 1979) [‘fin dall’infanzia Robert Louis Stevenson è stato per me una delle forme della felicità’]
G.K. Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1927)
Menikoff, Barry (1987), “Class and Culture in the English Short Story”, Journal of the Short Story in English 8 (1987), pp. 125-39.
– – -, “New Arabian Nights: Stevenson’s experiment in Fiction”, Nineteenth-Century Literature 43 (iii 1990), pp. 339-62.
Noble, Andrew, From the Clyde to California. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Emigrant Journey (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1985)
Robert Louis Stevenson: the Critical Heritage, ed by Paul Maixner (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981)
Woolf, Leonard, “The Fall of Stevenson”, Essays on Literature, History, Politics etc.. (London: Hogarth Press, 1927)
Editor’s Note: This biography, which was originally published on the RLS website, is reprinted here for educational purposes, as allowed by the RLS website. We are grateful for their willingness to make this available to students.
You may also find it interesting to read G. K. Chesterton’s thoughts on Robert Louis Stevenson.
When will you read Stevenson’s writing in Excellence in Literature?